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Calls to Action

Disability Rights: Public Schools vs Private Schools

May 08, 2014

This Q & A is with attorney Gary Mayerson. Mayerson serves on the Board of Autism Speaks and is the founder of Mayerson & Associates, a Manhattan-based law firm founded in 2000 as the very first law firm in the nation dedicated to the representation of individuals with autism. Mayerson is currently representing the Sample family in a lawsuit against Washington District preschool, a private school that the family claims rejected their son Owen after learning he was diagnosed with autism.  Watch the WABC video below to learn more. 

1. What inspired you to take up the Sample family's lawsuit against Washington Market preschool? The fact pattern described by the family presented a very clear picture of discrimination.  However, I was most impressed by the family’s evident courage and willingness to bring this important issue to light, so hopefully, other similarly situated families will not be victimized.

2. Is this a first of its kind lawsuit? This is not the first case claiming discrimination under the ADA and a wrongful refusal to allow reasonable accommodations.  It may, however, be one of the very first ADA cases in the nation alleging discrimination against a private preschool. Most parents in this situation would simply find another school and move on. Owen’s parents, however, are not content to walk away from this injustice because they knew it would just happen again to someone else.

3. Do private schools have any legal obligation to provide special needs programs/services for students? No.  We are not saying that Washington Market had any obligation to itself provide a special education program to Owen.  Rather, we are saying that Washington Market is not exempt from the anti-discrimination provisions of the ADA and that it could not discriminate against Owen by accepting him and then retracting that acceptance on the basis of his diagnosis without even laying eyes on him and without considering his parents’ request for reasonable accommodations.  Here, Owen’s parents told the school that they would supply and pay for the classroom paraprofessional that Owen would need and they had seen another child in the school having that kind of support.

4. How would the situation be different if this were a public school? If Washington Market were a public school it would also be subject to the ADAs mandates and we would have been able to invoke additional statutes, such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

5. If the school comes back and agrees to accept Owen, will the Sample family be happy with that? What is the goal of the lawsuit? Owen’s parents did not bring this case for money, and they also did not bring this case to force Washington Market to accept their son but to then treat him as some kind of pariah.  Owen’s parents have made it abundantly clear that they would not place Owen in any school where there was a hostile environment and where he was not genuinely welcome.  One of the main objectives of the lawsuit is to secure injunctive relief and to appoint a federal monitor to make sure that going forward, Washington Market complies with the ADA in its application and admissions process. A first step is to get Washington Market to abandon its discriminatory policies and practices.